by Michael D. Wynne
It always amazes me how many great and noteworthy people have come to central Louisiana and made their mark. It seems as though everyone that was important person of the 19th and 20th century at one time or another paid a visit to Rapides Parish. This was for many reasons, not the least of which was the military and their installations here.
Recently, this columnist “discovered” another 20th century great who not only visited here, but performed here. Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971), “Satchmo,” was a nationally-known trumpeter and vocalist. He was among the most influential figures in all of jazz.
His career spanned five decades and several eras in the history of jazz. He received numerous accolades including the Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance for Hello, Dolly! in 1965, as well as a posthumous win for the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972, and the induction into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.
Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans. Coming to prominence in the 1920s as an inventive trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was the foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance. Around 1922, he followed his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, to Chicago to play in the Creole Jazz Band. But, in the early 1930’s on the brink of ultimate fame, Armstrong returned to perform in the South, most notably in Louisiana.
The “Pine Rest Night Club” was an elaborately large night club existing during the depression. It was located on Donahue Ferry Road, just outside of Pineville on the edge of the Libuse community. It had been described as having a “mini pine tree garden, and a fish pond with a lake behind it. “Tables on the Lawn” were also available as the performances could be heard inside and outside. The club had 2 large bars and a stage big enough for a large orchestra to be comfortably situated. According to available information, it opened in the early 1930’s and was last known to exist in early 1938. Tom and Ila Taylor originally managed the club, followed later by Mack McGinnis.
Louis Armstrong performed there on Wednesday night, June 27, and Saturday night, June 30. He was actually the back-up performer, second to a performer called “Willie Lucky” of Shreveport. Normal admission to the Pine Rest Night Club was $1.10
for men with & and “ladies always free,” but that night admission was a flat 40 cents person.
Reservations were still required, but imagine paying 40 cents to hear and dance to Louis Armstrong performing all night. Sadly, there is no follow-up newspaper article on how his performance was received.
The orchestra that night supporting Armstrong was the “Bogues Harlem Stompers.” But over the 1930’s, there were many bands that played at the Pine Rest including “Crone’s Orchestra,” “The Silverleaf Orchestra,” “William Imperial Ten,” “The
Rhythm Boys,” “Buddy and His Melody Boys,” “Barnes’ Silverleaf Orchestra,” and “Thnkins and His Night Hawks.”
We don’t know where Armstrong stayed while in central Louisiana, but a 1930’s “Green Book” (a book then showing where African-Americans could stay on trips) showed 3 locations in central Louisiana he might have stayed at: the Orient Hotel on Lee Street, the Greystone Hotel on Harrison Street, and the McClung Tourist Home on Winn Street, all 3 sadly no longer standing. Just think, like Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Louis Armstrong not only visited Alexandria, but conducted business here and likely stayed here.
If any reader is familiar with any other great African-American who visited in Central Louisiana, please let this columnist know.